Welcome To The Paris Plages
You could be lounging in your deckchair, wiggling your toes in the soft sand as the rippling water glistens a few feet away. Or maybe you’ll be slurping on an ice-cream cone under a jaunty beach umbrella, watching the kids build sandcastles. But whatever you’re doing, it will be hard to believe that you’re actually right in the heart of Paris, 150 miles from the nearest seaside.
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The temporary Paris beaches that millions will enjoy this August are the result of an extraordinary project by the civic authorities in the French capital. Every year they artificially create miles of sandy beaches so locals and visitors can enjoy a makeshift Paris Riviera.
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The ‘Paris Plages’ will be open for the 2016 season from 9am till midnight every day, from July 18th to August 21st. It’s an unlikely chance to sample French beach-life in the middle of the landlocked capital city. Yet just 20 years ago, Paris was generally avoided during August. Even locals would say that the French national holidays left the city dull and deserted. And this far inland the August weather can be hot and dry, making the dusty urban area an inhospitable place to be.
Thankfully that old view of Paris in August is disappearing fast. That’s all thanks to the brainwave of a socialist mayor called Bertrand Delanoe, who started the Paris Plages project back in 2002. His idea was to set up a single small area for locals to relax by the River Sienne that flows through the middle of the city. He thought that those were stuck in Paris because of their work would at least benefit from having some sense of relaxing by the water.
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Despite lots of reservations, Bertrand’s plan turned out to be a great success. Locals and tourists flocked to the riverside area. And the Plages project has steadily grown since then. More beach zones have been created and many more events and facilities arranged every year. By 2007, more than four million people were using the makeshift Paris beaches in the summer. And it has continued to grow since then. Best of all, the beaches are still completely free.
If you visit Paris this August you’ll find major roads along the side of the river will be closed. The authorities have created a car-free riverside zone to allow more space for the beaches. And today the Plages don’t just run along the Sienne, they’ve been opened at the Bassin de la Villette, an artificial lake in the northeast of the city. It’s the largest man-made patch of water in the capital and makes a perfect spot for a day at the ‘seaside’. There are also ‘beach’ activities in the plaza in front of the ‘Hotel de Ville’, (the city hall) too.
It all starts when around 5,000 tonnes of sand are shipped in and arranged by bulldozers along the banks of the river. There are even swaying palm trees, temporarily installed in giant plant pots. Soon you spot rollerbladers swish past families eating picnics on the sand. And people start turning up to a big programme of sports events, including volleyball, aqua-gym and basketball.
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This year you’ll find beaches facing each other on the left and right banks of the Seine, with a special temporary shuttle ferry between them. The authorities have even found a way to allow swimming: in clean pools floating in the river. That’s because the river isn’t clean enough to swim in. In fact, it’s considered so dangerously unhealthy that there’s a 15 Euro fine if you do. You can find that the unlikely attractions of this short-lived August resort include outdoor ballroom dancing lessons, climbing walls on the sides of the embankments and an array of cooling mist showers to walk under. Look out too for wooden boardwalks, sun-loungers and, of course, ice-cream sellers.
You’ll also have the unusual chance to take a pedal boat out onto the Seine River or even try standing up on a paddle board on this world-famous waterway. In a shaded area under a bridge you might find an informal tournament being held amid a collection of bar-football tables. To find the hub of the Paris beachlife head for the right bank of the Seine. The ‘beach’ stretches for three-and-a-half kilometres here, between the Pont Neuf and the Pont de Sully. For a quieter beach experience, cross the river to the left bank. The Voie George Pompidou Expressway is closed to create a genteel Paris seaside resort.
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The marina at La Villette, in the 19th Arrondisment, is the place to go for serious watersport action. The Jaurès Metro station is the nearest. At this big man-made basin, you’ll find facilities for rowing, sailing, kayaking and boat cruises. On the shore there are more sports like archery, badminton, tennis, golf, football, Tai chi and even Frisbee. Don’t worry, the less energetic can simply relax at bars, restaurants, and children’s playgrounds. You can even borrow books to read, for free, from a pop-up library.
The lake connects Canal de l’Ourcq to the Canal St Martin, where there are waterside recreation areas for August too. Head for the square in front of the Paris City Hall for free live music. At the time of writing – all the details haven’t been finalised so check with the tourist office for dates and times here.
There are also sports (including rugby) and leisure facilities here too. Previously, there have been dancing contests and the nearby Louvre Museum has held special outdoor exhibitions. The final colourful features are unveiled at the last moment each year but one particular French sporting event is sure to happen this year – and every year. In fact, the Paris civic authorities are very careful to allow plenty of pitches for locals to play their favourite traditional summer game, which is, of course, boules.